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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 28 Mar 2000

Vol. 516 No. 6

Private Members' Business. - Broadcasting Policy: Motion.

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

–condemns the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands on her handling of the Broadcasting Bill, 1999, and deplores the total uncertainty she has created among the media and communications sectors, with particular reference to management and workers at RTE and TG4, who were not informed of any intention on her part to alter the proposed and accepted format of transmission management and control through the Company Digico;

–further deplores:

–the lack of clarity in regard to income streams for RTE and TG4;

–the omission of digital radio from the Broadcasting Bill, 1999;

–her consistent avoidance of the issue of authorising the indexation of licence fees approved by the previous Government and non-action in the matter of considering a licence fee increase;

–her refusal to clarify her position to Dáil Éireann since her announcement of her intention to alter the Digico concept;

–her unwillingness to clarify her position to the Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis on the same subject, and

–her inability to provide an alternative model at her meeting with RTE;

–resolves that a substantial public shareholding be retained in the transmission system with appropriate guarantees;

–approves indexation of the licence fee authorised by the previous government; and

–in relation to the Broadcasting Bill, 1999,

rescinds the Order of Dáil Éireann referring the Bill to the Select Committee on Heritage and the Irish Language and hereby resolves that the Bill be withdrawn.".

This motion is born out of a sense of deep frustration and uncertainty created by the inept handling of the Broadcasting Bill, 1999, by the Minister to date. I regret that the Government is now characterised by a lack of vision, imagination and leadership. There is a deep mistrust within the broadcasting and communications network at the ability of the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Deputy de Valera, to deal effectively with this Bill. I hope she will use the opportunity presented to her here this evening to state her views clearly, to tell the truth about her changes of view and to indicate what exactly she has in mind regarding Digico, RTE, its workers and the future of boardcasting as far as the Bill is concerned, and that she does not seek to hide behind some smokescreen. While the House, the workers in the industry and the country at large wait to hear her latest thoughts on the future of what used to be called broadcasting, it is regrettably the case that the broadcasting and communications agenda marches on without her and without us.

There is a peculiar and little known fact about the business before the Dáil this evening which I want to relate because it has a direct bearing on the motion. The present dilemma started on 23 February 2000, with the following headline in the Irish Independent: RTE Transmission Will Be Sold To Highest Bidder. The story stated that the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands had decided to eliminate RTE's share in the privatised transmission company with the name of Digico and subsequent reports stated that the Minister intended to table appropriate amendments to the Broadcasting Bill, 1999, on Committee Stage. The peculiar and ironic twist to these stories is that the Bill is so vague and imprecise about what property is to be sold that it would be unnecessary to amend the Broadcasting Bill, 1999, to eliminate RTE's minority share. The Bill is so loose about what is to be conveyed that if passed into law as published the Government could privatise “The Late Late Show”, the film archives or the RTE car park; it does not discriminate.

The Bill does not specify a percentage ownership for RTE or any formula or means to arrive at a figure. The RTE shareholding could be reduced to a cipher without altering a single character of type. The Bill does not prescribe any process by which a private company is to come into ownership of all or a part of RTE transmission.

When I first read that headline in the Irish Independent, whose parent company has a vested interest in Princes Holdings, it came as somewhat of a relief because up until that headline it was unclear by what criteria the Government intended to choose between different prospective owners. There was some mention of negotiating with suitable prospective strategic partners, a concept which is difficult to reconcile with the legal niceties of a complete or partial privatisation. The Bill refers to privatisation in one place only, where it states that RTE should:

transfer such parts of its real and personal property as the Authority, with the consent of the Minister and the Minister for Finance, determines ought to be the subject of such a transfer.

When one reads that, the words "blank cheque" come to mind. Until now, we have been asked to endorse the sale of whatever components of RTE the Minister, Deputy de Valera, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, think fit. The two Ministers will forgive us on this side of the House if we, who are not in the habit of handing over wallets to strangers, are sceptical of these arrangements. We, who are not inclined to pre-sign cheque books, are in need of a great deal of precision when it comes to the sale of £30 million to £60 million of State property. We, who are not inclined to sign contracts before we read them, prefer that the Broadcasting Bill, 1999, should enumerate the assets to be included in the sale. The Bill, which authorises a transfer of assets, should also regulate that transfer. It appears that the Bill is now unravelling on this very point.

I will state a brief history of the Bill, in particular, as it relates to the Digico proposal and the RTE shareholding. In late 1997, RTE proposed to the Government that it should enter into a strategic partnership to provide the necessary funding for the introduction of digital terrestrial television. On 22 July 1998, the Government announced its decision to draft broadcasting legislation. The press release issued by the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht stated:

I and the Government have accepted that the proposals – which would involve RTE entering into a partnership for the provision of technical facilities to broadcasters in Ireland – provide the best opportunity for the early roll-out of the infrastructure that will guarantee universal service.

A project management group was formed in February 1999 to advise on the sale of the existing RTE transmission network. The press release on the establishment of the project group referred to "the new entity to be created in which RTE will be a minority partner".

The Broadcasting Bill was introduced to the Dáil on 27 May 1999. In November 1999, the Office of the Director of Telecommunications Regulation opened a consultation paper on digital terrestrial television licensing, which still remains open, awaiting the passage of the Broadcasting Bill into law. The Bill was debated by the Dáil in November and in her opening speech the Minister stated:

[The Broadcasting Bill] enables me, as Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, to designate a company which will be licensed by the Director of Telecommunications Regulation to construct and operate the DTT infrastructure which shall comprise six transmission systems known as multiplexes. RTE will be a minority partner with a shareholding of up to 40 per cent.

Later, on the subject of Digico, she stated:

The approach taken is in line with RTE's suggestion for the development of digital television in Ireland.

Then the Dáil sent the Broadcasting Bill, 1999, to the Committee on Heritage and the Irish Langu age. A series of four hearings were held by the committee between December 1999 and February 2000. The committee heard presentations from a range of groups, including RTE, the RTE workers' trades union, TV3, TG4, UTV, Cablelink, Irish Multichannel, the ODTR, the Independent Radio and Television Commission, the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland, Crown Castle, which is a prospective bidder, and others too numerous to mention here.

Then on 23 February 2000, without reference to that committee or its hearings, the Irish Independent carried the headline, This Time There Was No Press Release. This time, after saying that 70% of the story was true, the Minister was incommunicado in Los Angeles. She could not be contacted despite all the technology which exists including the worldwide web, GSM and all sorts of mobile telephones. Subsequently the Minister said in her speech at the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis: “I have not finalised my proposals to amend the Broadcasting Bill, but I hope to do so in the next few weeks and then bring them to Government for approval”. The Bill, is currently before the Select Committee on Heritage and the Irish Language which has not yet attempted to splice in the numerous amendments already tabled.

The Labour and Fine Gael parties have attempted to extract an explanation from the Minister during Question Time why the sudden shift in direction occurred. The answers to our questions do not depend on her proposed solutions, so we do not agree with the need for a delay. All we got for our troubles was a robotic recitation of rubbish from Mespil Road. For example, "the development of a transaction process which satisfies all the requirements of the project management group and the Government objectives to introduce digital terrestrial television has proved difficult and complex". This much we already knew but, as public representatives and Members of the Oireachtas, we have a right and need to know what his going on.

The project management group has been in business for over a year. If they have suddenly discovered that under EU rulings they cannot just put a price tag on State assets and then find some nice people to buy them, we have a problem. This news has created havoc in RTE whose employees were looking forward to a new career in the private sector with the prospect of an employee stock option plan which their representatives were in the process of negotiating. Now, for all they know, they are facing a P45 instead of an ESOP. It must be a bit of a roller coaster for employees, particularly for those who may have purchased new homes in the past few years or are repaying hefty mortgages. The Minister has launched a wave of uncertainty upon RTE which is still washing around its corridors and will not subside until she does something about it. She owes these people an explanation now and not at some vague time in the future.

Item 1 in the 1999 framework agreement on partnership in RTE refers to the scope of the agreement saying: "This agreement covers RTE and all subsidiaries under the control of the RTE Authority. It is subject to the obligations and duties, whether direct or delegated, of the authority contained in the Broadcasting Acts". The document defines the framework, which the Minister's action have seriously interfered with, as follows:

It is a relationship whereby each side recognises that the other has legitimate interests and rights as well as obligations. Partnership implies that both parties have common interests in the success of the organisation, its competitiveness, viability and prosperity. The parties are committed to creating a shared understanding of the future of RTE and to sharing the responsibilities and gains that flow from that understanding.

Has the Minister's sudden change of heart and view not seriously interrupted the delicate and meaningful negotiations which were being conducted between management, the trade union group and the people involved in the transmission network? I am not sure if her announcement last night on the "Nine O'Clock News" regarding a facilitator was the result of discussions at the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis.

All this could have been avoided if the three-fold structure of the Broadcasting Bill, the privatisation of transmission assets and the licensing regime had been planned and organised more carefully in advance. In the absence of any definitive statement from the Minister we must speculate.

There are several possible reasons for a decision to eliminate RTE from a minority shareholding in the designated company in the Broadcasting Bill. It is well known that TV3 and the independent radio broadcasters are unhappy with the prospect of their major competitor sitting on the board of Digico, which would be their sole distributor. Second, one or more of the prospective bidders may have balked at the strategic partnership with RTE and preferred a total buy-out – this was made clear to us at the committee. We could accept what the newspapers say, namely, that it had to do with the valuation of RTE's transmission assets. If that is the case then it is only half the story, as I will explain. It could well be that the Minister has finally conceded that certain provisions in the Bill are not compatible with the EU Treaty, as we warned throughout the Second Stage debate. Finally, it may be that the plans had become unravelled due to a shift in EU regulatory policy published in the November 1999 communications review entitled "Towards a new Framework for Electronic Communications Infrastructure and Associated Services".

Let us consider what the papers say, namely, that it had to do with the valuation placed on the RTE assets by the project management group consultants. What was the purpose of the evaluation? Anything is worth what it can be sold at on the open market and a transaction is not additionally complicated by a sale of part ownership. For example, if 60% of a company was being offered for sale and the highest bid was £60 million, then one could say the company was worth £100 million and that the part not being sold was worth £40 million. There is no particular problem in evaluating this. However, a dilemma arises if one is selling two things together, for example, a company and a large tract of land which are not owned by the same person. One cash figure will attach to both assets and there is a predicament in dividing the money between both owners. It has not been stated, but we may surmise that the evaluation was necessary primarily because the sale of RTE assets was tied to a frequency option in the same bidding process. The highest bidder for the existing transmission assets was also going to get a majority share of the DTT which represent a certain cash value of their own. The assessment was necessary to distinguish between these two holdings because they belonged to two different owners, namely, RTE and the State.

The Broadcasting Bill is very clever in this regard. It appears to separate these two by giving the Minister power to designate a transmission company, but we all know the designated company is identical with the owner of the privatised RTE network. The Broadcasting Bill does not authorise a frequency option. It permits an outright grant of valuable frequencies to a private company. However, the reality of the frequency option was not lost on the advisers to the project management group. They ordered an evaluation so it could be subtracted from the highest bid with the remainder to go directly to the Department of Finance in order to avoid an unauthorised State aid to RTE. According to the newspapers RTE did not agree with the valuation as it was too low and amounted to a bargain basement sale. So the Minister announced she had decided to sell the entire RTE network instead.

However, there is still a missing link in this story. The Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands on behalf of the Government appoints the authority of RTE and the members of the board at her pleasure. The current board is coming to the end of its tenure and within the next few weeks an announcement will be made about new members of the new authority. I hope the announcement is made either to the committee or the Dáil and not on the steps of an aircraft on the way to New Zealand, Shanghai or Alaska, as happened in terms of the comment following the leaked story in the Irish Independent. These are very important positions and, given the complexity and importance of broadcasting and communications for the future, the Minister should inform the House of the qualities of the persons she intends appointing in terms of their future remit on the authority. I am not sure whether my eyes deceive me, but it appears at least as if some likely looking characters have been seen escorted across the bridge of sighs towards the opulence of the ministerial quarters ready to serve when they get the call in the national interest.

In the national interest.

The £30 million to £60 million question is, how would eliminating RTE's shareholding resolve the problem? The Broadcasting Bill ties together two items under the same price and the money still has to be split between the two owners. While the media reports would imply that an impasse on the valuation of the RTE network was to be resolved through market forces, the only way to do this would be to eliminate the frequency option and hold an open licence round for DTT licences.

I tabled 11 parliamentary questions on 23 November 1999. Question No. 307 in that list requested specific assets and a list of what was to be sold. The Minister replied that consultants had been engaged to advise on all aspects of the transaction process, legal, regulatory and financial, and to manage the process to a conclusion under the direction of the project management group established by Government to oversee the introduction of DTT. Has it been managed to a conclusion? Has the project management group reported finally to the Minister? Will its members be paid for their work? I would like the Minister to clarify the legal and technical difficulties and what they mean.

Events have overtaken the proposed legislation and the convergence Green Paper has finally closed in on television broadcasting networks. The European Commission has decided to regulate them in keeping with the principle of technological neutrality in a new legislative framework. The 1999 "Communications Review", which was published in November, stated that in practice technological neutrality means that the new framework would apply to telecommunications networks, fixed or mobile; satellite networks; cable television networks; terrestrial broadcast networks; and facilities, such as application programme interfaces which control access to services.

This is in marked contrast to the Minister's remarks last November during Second Stage of the Broadcasting Bill, 1999, when she stated:

There is an argument that in a world where the technologies are converging, all services should be treated and regulated in the same way as commercial telecommunications services. I do not accept this position. Following extensive debate in Europe the EU has come to the same conclusion for the time being, at least.

To which world does the Minister refer? In this world the EU has decided to liberalise television broadcasting infrastructure and to regulate it in the same way as commercial telecommunications services. It may well be that in some parallel universe the EU has decided otherwise.

The bidding is under way for a third licence in England.

Until now television delivery has been exempted from telecommunications liberalisation, but with the convergence of broadcasting and liberalised communications services such as the Internet in the same facility, it has become necessary to do away with this exemption. The principal tenet of telecommunications liberalisation is to eliminate special or exclusive rights granted by the state to a particular company to provide telecommunications services.

The Broadcasting Bill, 1999, empowers the Minister to designate a company to provide DTT services and to grant such licences without an open licence round, which is a special right. If that framework were in place the legislation would contravene EU law and would risk being overthrown by the European Commission. The Bill is a lame duck measure, a last ditch attempt to provide some special rights before the door closes forever on monopoly operators. It contradicts the Government's position in this important area, which has warmly welcomed telecommunications liberalisation. The Minister for Public Enterprise brought forward the deadline for voice telephony liberalisation by two years, despite the objections of Eircom, yet the Government is resisting the logical extension of liberalisation to all forms of electronic communication. How does that relate to consistent Government policy?

To what did all this relate? We were led to understand that an injection of outside capital was necessary for RTE to undertake the digitalisation of its network but this notion was expanded to include the provision of cross-Border television, pay television and the Internet in one monolithic entity. A monopoly was to be established for all digital television services in Ireland in order to attract investment. A hefty allotment of the television broadcast spectrum was to be handed over to the new entity in order to exploit as a private plantation.

RTE management wanted to keep its hand in this business, despite the fact that it has not shown great flair for telecommunications regulation. The digital automaton created by RTE and produced by the Department of the Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands has suddenly transformed itself into a walking machine and has escaped from the laboratory, yet nobody seems to know where it has taken up new lodgings. However, there are some dark thoughts that it is no longer working in the national interest. The Minister should tell the public, RTE employees and the enthusiastic staff at TG4 why this is the case.

Why should she decide to sell the transmission system to persons of her own choosing? Is it a whim or is it policy? Why must the system be sold and our broadcasters levied with force of law to sustain and maintain it thereafter? If it is her policy, will she explain it and indicate who formulated it? There is apprehension abroad that it was not formulated by a Minister, Department or the Cabinet but by a financial institution which hardly distinguished itself in its bewildering corporate parts before the Committee of Public Accounts last year and which allegedly has an interest in one of the declared bidders for the transmission system. Is the digital automaton in the service of unnamed private investors? Will it be used to fleece the public? The Minister should do something about it now before it is too late.

There are approximately one million television households in the State. The television network is valued at between £30 million and £60 million, or £30 to £60 per household. Television viewers have paid for this network through the licence fee over the years and are entitled to the benefit of it. The Government could liquidate that amount per household and give it to RTE for programmes. However, how much will the transmission service cost after it is sold off? The value of the network per household could save a great deal of household expense. The private company which buys the transmitters and sites will have to recover the cost from us sooner or later at a profit. If one were to ask each household whether it would like to sell its small holding in the network, it would vote to hold onto a good portion of it in order to ensure that it is not duped out of hundreds of pounds annually for a generation to come.

Nothing in the new EU framework requires the divestment of the television network. Such decisions are based on competition rules, which are applied on a case by case basis. The new directives will call for separate accounting and regulations to ensure fair play by the network operator in dealing with different broadcasters. This is why the motion calls for a substantial shareholding to remain in public hands. There is no need for total buyout and there are some good reasons for keeping the network.

Does the Broadcasting Bill only relate to television? It has caused some considerable consternation in the independent radio sector because radio network services are provided by RTE and many stations have contracted out the operation of transmitters to the State broadcaster. On the other hand, many local radio operators own sites which are not part of the RTE network. They need assurances regarding facilities which will be transferred to a new company. Local radio operators already deal with the RTE network in their role as telecommunications operators and wish to be regulated as such. In particular, they would prefer that the fees they are charged would be approved by the telecommunications regulator rather than by negotiation with a monopoly oper ator of prime transmission sites in Ireland. Such an arrangement will result from a new EU framework but is not yet in place.

The definition of a "broadcasting service" in the legislation does not exclude the provision of sound services on digital terrestrial television. DTT is capable of such transmission just as sound services are already provided on digital satellite television. Band width has been made available for the independent television broadcaster to simulcast on digital television but no such provision has been made for independent radio, and broadcasters are understandably concerned. They do not want to be phased out following the introduction of new technology. Digital terrestrial radio is also a consideration. Ireland has been assigned two digital multiplexes under international agreements, which are capable of providing 12 channels of high fidelity sound directly to home and car receivers over the airwaves. However, there is no policy for the development of these channels and they are not mentioned in the Broadcasting Bill, 1999.

The independent television sector has been damaged by the Minister's paralysis in decision making. In early summer 1999 she announced that she intended in the Bill to cap the amount of money RTE would be legally obliged to spend in the independent sector at £16 million. RTE then decided, on foot of this oral announcement, to go ahead and implement this change. Later last year, the Minister announced that she was trying to find another formula which was fairer to the independent television sector. Twelve months later, with the Bill still not passed into law, the independent sector finds itself in the invidious position of suffering from an RTE cap on spending which is either at the discretion of the Minister or is illegal. The 1993 Broadcasting Act still applies to an extent and if it does not apply, then RTE should be spending £20 million on independent production.

Events have moved on since last summer. In December 1999, the Minister announced she had accepted the findings of the Ossie Kilkenny report in full.

Who is he?

A much favoured son from the north county. This report identified independent television production as the greatest growth sector over the next five years, even greater than film, but if the Minister is unwilling to revisit her earlier statements, amend her proposal in the Bill and scrap the unworkable cap, the entire industry is in the dark about what RTE must do in 2000 and 2001. This creates a legal vacuum, it is impossible for companies to plan and it is a total and utter shambles.

I am interested in the clarification of the Minister's views on RTE and her vision for the future. Those views do not appear to present any coherent vision of the multi-media future and RTE's and Ireland's place in it. As a consequence, if the Minister continues to do nothing, it is quite likely that neither Ireland nor RTE will have any place in that multi-media future. There will be no Irish voices to be heard, no Irish angle, no súil eile.

Were the Minister to ask me what will be the importance of RTE in the future, I would tell her that RTE was formed to bring the first wave of electronic media to Ireland. It stood, and tries today to stand, as a guarantor to every citizen, however affluent or impoverished, that they will have access to a sustainable diet of information and entertainment from Ireland and the world at large. That is the concept I invite the Minister to embrace. That concept, more than the generalities of the Minister's Bill, justifies the funds we as a nation have given to RTE year after year. That is its job. That is the proper right and entitlement of every citizen of this State. That role is more important today than it ever was before.

We are braced for a huge proliferation in media and the content available. RTE must be central to that. RTE must, in that hostile and challenging environment, do two things. It must ensure that there are articulate and culturally significant Irish voices to be heard in the avalanche of electronically delivered data and it must ensure that no citizen of this State becomes disadvantaged for want of that data. That guarantee has been honoured up to this point. The Minister has an obligation – ta brú agus dualgais ort – geassa, as it is called, and she cannot avoid it. She should not humiliate herself by trying to do so.

These are big jobs. The good news is that RTE and TG4 are equal to the task. The bad news is that the Minister will not allow or empower them to address that challenge. The Minister tolerates, aids and abets a situation where RTE's strategic management is not free to manage. Her powers in this Bill are excessive and need to be addressed by her. RTE, operating in two channel land, faces a deficit of £9 million this year. Under the new regulation, with five channels to operate and relying more on commercial advertising, the station faces an increasing diet of globalisation. The children in the country are talking about movies, cookies, etc. Is the real Irish personality being protected by the Minister's actions?

The Minister has done absolutely nothing for TG4. She would have it wholly dependent on her generosity in proposing an annual grant. She must explain to the country the reason she wants this station so dependent upon her good will. She should understand TG4 for what it is and for what it can be. The language has not fared well in recent years. The Minister's predecessor, the former Minister, Deputy Michael Higgins, realised this and piloted through the House, with some care, the concept of TG4 and its innovation. He followed that with a full rapporteur's report for the Joint Committee on Heritage and the Irish Language which this Minister seems to have ignored completely. The House at that time endorsed an enlightened policy. It decided that making a television service available in Irish was an appropriate cultural objective. That was the will of the Legislature. TG4 has been a remarkable success. Its staff and management deserve both our congratulations and gratitude but instead, with RTE, it is being starved economically.

What the Minister has allowed to happen in terms of the Broadcasting Bill is unconscionable. There has clearly been a national imperative that the Bill should be instituted and working by now. Every day competitors source from abroad in a digital context and move ever nearer the roll-out of their own digital facilities. Once the east coast becomes comfortable with that, it will be more and more difficult for the RTE concept to achieve its objectives and meet its targets.

A glaring anomaly that the Minister has not addressed is the position, in clusters, of our indigenous television services. The Minister should have addressed that issue by now. She will have received combined letters from TG4 and TV3 setting out their serious concerns in this area. I invite the Minister to deal with that issue in her reply.

The announcement last night of the appointment of a facilitator to act in the digital terrestrial television discussions is carried in today's Irish Independent. The Minister said she was committed to consulting widely with those who were involved in the process of advancing DTT and that she has met representatives of all those likely to transfer to DTT within the past number of weeks. Did the Minister meet those people in Los Angeles? Was it in Mespil Road? Did she meet the people who came before the committee chaired by Deputy Carey or was it only the representatives of the persons involved in the transmission end of the RTE network?

What about the fellow who was waving his hand at the Árd Fheis?

A company spokesman said that the station believes the early introduction of a digital platform was extremely important for Irish broadcasters and viewers. An RTE spokesman recently said that every month of a delay made this matter worse for RTE in terms of its roll-out of digital facilities.

The Joint Committee on Heritage and the Irish Language is not the vehicle to deal with the amendments that are as broad and as fundamental as those now required. The committee would be able to pleat together a few strands here and there but it is unable to reweave the fabric of this Broadcasting Bill as is required. The Minister should take back the Bill, revise it and resubmit it.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all the words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:

"welcomes the Government's decision to arrange for the establishment of a Digital Terrestrial Television platform;

recognises the complexities involved in establishing the platform;

compliments the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands on her efforts to date to devise an appropriate structure, which takes the position of all interested parties into account, for progressing the matter both at an operational level and through the provisions of the Broadcasting Bill, 1999; and

welcomes her decision to appoint a facilitator to assist the process."

Fine Gael's new found interest in digital broadcasting is, I suppose, a welcome development, but I find it a little hard to take from a party that was in Government for two and a half years but did not put forward one proposal in relation to this important development. Now, when pressed to have a view, it appears to be running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. Perhaps its policy, if one can call it that, owes less to logic than to the seasonal influence of the March hare. In this Alice in Wonderland approach adopted by Fine Gael to formulating policy on this issue, is it possible that the architect was the dormouse who spent most of his time dozing by the teapot?

What an about turn Fine Gael has undergone from November to March. During the Second Stage debate on the Broadcasting Bill in November, Fine Gael transmitted the "TV3 line". Now, in March, it is transmitting the "RTE line"– if a unified RTE line exists. One must ask Fine Gael whether the Mad Hatter has got at the zapper again.

I want to make a number of issues quite clear. Neither the Government nor I have changed our basic policy in relation to the introduction of digital terrestrial television. I have been forced to consider changes to the structure for developing this digital platform, following concerns expressed by the RTE Authority on the manner of the sale of the transmission network. I hope that by the end of my contribution this evening, the public will have a clearer idea why the debate on the Broadcasting Bill in this House has been delayed and who is mainly responsible. I assure the House that both the Government and I wish to proceed as quickly as possible with this Bill. The delays are not down to us. My primary con cern is the early roll-out of digital terrestrial television in Ireland. The Government wants Ireland to be at the forefront of these developments and that is my priority.

Recent comments on the Broadcasting Bill, 1999, and on the policy context in which its provisions were framed vary, at best, from plain wrong to, at worst, deliberately misleading. Such unfortunate commentary reached a scandalous new low in a report in the Sunday Business Post on 12 March last, in which Deputy Kenny was quoted as saying that 400 people could be made redundant from RTE as part of the process of establishing a digital terrestrial television platform.

The management of RTE told us at the committee that 400 people would—

The Minister, without interruption. Time is limited in this debate.

This particular piece of scaremongering is unacceptable.

We were told that by the RTE management.

In using the feelings of 400 honest, hardworking public servants as a political football—

That is terrible.

The Deputy must allow the Minister continue.

—to stir up a political controversy, the Deputy belittles this House and its procedures, which through his motion he purports to uphold.

I am very upset about this. I chaired the committee meeting at which RTE made that statement. It is terrible for the Minister to try to twist this.

It is not appropriate to interrupt the Minister. The Deputy will have an opportunity to make a contribution.

I will – do not be in any doubt about that.

I ask him to reserve his comments until it is in order for him to make his contribution. The Minister, without interruption.

It is a shame that Deputy Kenny and his party seem to believe that such scurrilous hypocrisy is a substitute for a policy on broadcasting. Let us get a few things crystal clear.

That is totally wrong. I am surprised at the Minister. She should ask Mr. Ronayne to write another script and send him home.

Perhaps if Deputy Carey listened he might get a more accurate picture of what is actually going on—

Mr. Ronayne has ruined the Minister.

Deputy Carey must not interrupt the Minister.

—inside and outside this House.

Let us get a few things crystal clear. For the avoidance of further confusion, RTE itself is on record as saying that it must reduce its workforce by in excess of 300. This has nothing to do with the establishment of the digital platform under any scenario. The Government's proposals for the introduction of DTT and any changes that might have to be made to the stated policy in this regard will not result in a process which will make 400 people redundant.

The Government supports and affirms the importance of public service broadcasting. I want to emphasise, once again, that no part of RTE's television service is being privatised. The Government believes that the public service broadcasting service should be guaranteed by a strong RTE as the national broadcaster and Teilifís na Gaeilge, which is commonly known as TG4, as a national Irish language television service. I am not contemplating any proposals that would change this position. Indeed, Part IV of the Broadcasting Bill, 1999, emphasises the public service character of the broadcasting service that RTE is expected to maintain.

There are no plans to sell off the RTE transmission network at a "knock down price", as reported in some newspapers. Indeed, the reason I am contemplating bringing forward procedural changes to the Government decision on the introduction of DTT is to ensure that RTE is facilitated in its own desire to achieve full market value as a going concern for its existing analogue transmission network.

There is another spin in the commentary that has been appearing in the media recently that suggests I am plotting behind closed doors to change not only Government policy but also existing legislation. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. RTE has been part of the project management group all along. I have met members of the RTE Authority on this matter and will do so again shortly. My officials have met senior management on a number of occasions. RTE is fully aware that any change being contemplated to Government policy is being contemplated in order to allow RTE to achieve its objec tive of securing a market value for the transmission network. It also understands, I believe, that any change would be in the context of ensuring RTE's position as the public service broadcaster in the digital era.

I have recently met representatives of the RTE network staff and the RTE trade union group. No changes have, as yet, been put to Government. Any changes I will bring forward will be informed by these discussions and discussion with Cabinet colleagues. Should these proposals necessitate changes in the stated policy or to the Bill, any such changes will be presented for full and open debate to this House in the appropriate way at the appropriate time.

I should say that at my meetings with the RTE trade union group and the RTE network employees, I was deeply concerned that rumour and misinformation, as well as the more outrageous media reports, had gained a certain currency among RTE staff. This, in turn, has made it difficult for the employee groups to develop an informed position on the issues that have arisen during the process of establishing a DTT platform. This is clearly creating difficulties in driving forward the project and I have acted at once to resolve this particular problem. I have engaged the services of a facilitator in order to promote a common understanding among RTE, the RTE trade union group and the RTE network employees of the public policy objective of Government and the factors that must be taken into account in the achievement of this objective, the difficulties that have arisen in the development of a transaction structure and the parameters within which the process can move forward.

I am happy to say that all the parties involved have welcomed this initiative. I hope this appointment will help bring greater clarity than appears to be the case at present, and facilitate the presentation of information to me of the positions of these parties. Deputies will agree that I have been extremely fortunate to secure the services of Mr. Philip Flynn to act as facilitator. Mr. Flynn is widely respected for his integrity and competence in difficult and complex situations, such as that which we are dealing with at present. I have asked Mr. Flynn to carry out his task with all possible speed and to report back to me in three weeks.

What is he to facilitate? That is the Minister's job.

The report in today's edition of The Irish Times on this matter is inaccurate. Mr. Flynn has not been engaged, as was reported in the article, to resolve differences with RTE or to promote a common understanding between RTE and my Department. His task is as I described and he is not there to negotiate my position with any of the parties in RTE. The Government's policy on the introduction of DTT and the practical arrangements for realising that policy have been discussed in this House on a number of occasions. In order to set a context for the debate on this motion, it is necessary to run through them again. Deputies will also be aware that there may be a limited window of opportunity if DTT is to be able to compete successfully with other digital platforms such as satellite or cable television.

The Government decided on 22 July 1998 that the existing analogue transmission function should be separated from RTE. Under the terms of the decision, a new entity would be created in which RTE would retain an equity stake that would be mandated to build and operate the DTT transmission infrastructure and to promote the development of multimedia services and the information society. The decision also provided that the manner of the sale, the selection of the purchaser and the criteria for such selection were to be decided by a group headed by me as Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands and including the Ministers for Finance, Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Public Enterprise and RTE. A project management group made up of representatives of the Ministers concerned and RTE was established on foot of the Government decision. Given the importance and complexity of the task, the project management group selected a consortium of advisers led by Allied Irish Banks Corporate Finance to advise on and manage the project to a conclusion under the direction of the group.

And to make much profit.

As envisaged in the Government decision, the business of the DTT entity, which became known as Digico, would have consisted of two basic activities, transmission and multiplexing. The transmission activity would require Digico to invest in the upgrading of RTE's existing analogue transmission network in order for the network to be rendered capable of transmitting digital services. The capital cost of this upgrade was estimated at £40 million. In addition to the digital transmission business, Digico would continue to provide analogue transmission for RTE, Teilifís na Gaeilge and TV3. It would also provide transmission services for Today FM and a number of other independent sound broadcasters who have chosen to contract with RTE for transmission facilities.

The multiplexing activity would consist of retailing a package of programming to subscribers in much the same way as cable television operators do at present. Digico would offer various tiers of programming drawn from existing indigenous free to air services, British television services and some premium sports and film services. There would be scope for new indigenous services to be developed and carried. The availability of set top boxes to convert the digital signal for analogue sets will be crucial to this activity. Digico would have been licensed to operate six multiplexes. RTE would be guaranteed access to one multiplex while TG4 and TV3 would each be guaranteed access to half of one multiplex. At the current state of technological development, each multiplex would have the capacity of up to five television channels. It is intended that some capacity on the multiplexes will be devoted to information services. This aspect will be regulated by the ODTR.

The multiplexing activity will be competing with other digital platforms such as cable, MMDS and satellite for customers. The conventional wisdom is that in order to compete successfully the multiplex operator will have to heavily subsidise the set top boxes. For example, in Britain, satellite operator BSkyB and the DTT multiplex operator ONDIGITAL are giving the boxes away free.

As envisaged in the Government decision, whoever was selected to invest in the transmission business would automatically be guaranteed the multiplex business. RTE does not have and does not operate a multiplex business. The advice given to me is that a bidder in this scenario, in making a bid for the existing analogue transmission business, could be expected to place a value on the multiplexing business additional to the value that the bidder might place on the transmission business alone. In order to achieve the Government's objective, and if the risk of challenge to the process on the grounds that the process effectively conferred a State aid on either RTE or the proposed digital entity is to be avoided, the transaction should be progressed on the basis of a predetermined value of the existing transmission business so that RTE's fair share of the combined transmission and multiplexing business can be determined.

The RTE Authority has objected strongly to this approach and has indicated that its strong view is that the marketplace should determine the value of the RTE transmission business rather than a predetermined value based on an estimate of the value a prudent investor would place on the transmission business. The concerns of the RTE Authority cannot be lightly overridden. In addition, in the light of recent outcomes in the disposal of assets owned by State companies, Cablelink and the ESB stake in Ocean, for example, there is a strong argument in favour of allowing RTE to expose the existing analogue transmission business to the marketplace. There is a view that the only proper way of determining the true market value for the transmission business is to separate it from the multiplexing busi ness in order to avoid RTE possibly becoming the recipient of an unjustified windfall.

Let us consider the transmission infrastructure and its relationship to RTE and to public service broadcasting. Since 1960, transmission has been an integral part of RTE. That was also true of the BBC in Britain up until 1996 when the British Government instructed the BBC to sell off its transmission network through a private treaty sale. However transmission and broadcasting were not necessarily synonymous in other European countries. In Britain, independent broadcasters never provided their own transmission. Furthermore, some transmission entities in the member states of the European Union formerly in State ownership are no longer in such ownership. Such States are, like ourselves, committed to the concept of public service broadcasting as evidenced by the inclusion of the Protocol on Public Service Broadcasting as an annex to the Amsterdam Treaty.

Perhaps the main argument as to why one would wish to see the transmission function as an integral part of the national broadcaster is to ensure the achievement of the concept of universal availability, a concept that is a basic characteristic of public service broadcasting. However, ownership of the transmission function by a broadcaster is not the only way to achieve universal availability. Effective licensing and regulation can achieve the same objective. It can be argued that in our case, RTE's position as transmitter operator as well as broadcaster is as much an accident of history as it is an element of broadcasting policy.

The House should note it was not I or this Government that first mooted the idea of separating the transmission function from RTE and the disposal of part of its ownership by way of sale. RTE itself made the first move to change the concept of the transmission function from being an integral part of RTE. RTE had come to see the transmission function as an asset, the disposal of which, in part at least, could be exploited in order to generate funds for the organisation. It should also be remembered that the current proposals for the establishment of a DTT platform owe much to proposals circulated widely by RTE, which proposed the sale of the transmission network.

RTE began to have second thoughts when it became clear that the advice to the project management group was that the proper way to proceed was through a process in which the value of the network business was predetermined. In order to deal with these concerns and to facilitate RTE in ensuring that a market price can be achieved, I have indicated to them that I am considering allowing them to expose their transmission business to the market. Surprisingly, however, RTE still seems reluctant to proceed. I do not have to ask who is the digital ditherer here.

The original RTE proposal advocated that the retention by RTE of a substantial minority stake in the DTT entity would help to secure a public policy objective in that it would help ensure early and comprehensive roll-out of the infrastructure. The regulatory regime envisaged by the ODTR addressed this public policy obligation, regardless of who owns the transmission infrastructure. The question of whether RTE should maintain a minority stake in the transmission business as a stand-alone business is clearly not a matter of policy or, indeed, high politics. As I said earlier, RTE was the first to suggest partial disposal of these assets. It is simply a question of practically determining whether it is better for RTE to cash in the full value of its asset now at a time when it would be open to full competition and at a time of high interest in the market, or hold back a minority share now in the hope that it will increase in value in the future. I have to admit that there are arguments for and against both positions. It is, however, a simple practical choice as to which option is best for RTE and which will best deliver the Government's objectives in rolling out access to digital offerings as quickly as possible.

If a stake in transmission is a commercial investment on RTE's part, does this not beg the question as to when RTE itself may consider it commercially advantageous for it to divest itself entirely of any shareholding it may have? Clearly, to contemplate a scenario where RTE would not have an involvement in transmission is certainly not treason. If it were, I would be in good company – including perhaps the company of a number of other Members, from all sides – as I awaited the hangman's summons. I must also assume that it is a scenario somewhere in the back of RTE's mind for the future.

As a result of these issues, I might well find it necessary to propose some changes of approach to Government. Of the 56 sections in the Broadcasting Bill, 1999, only four deal with the establishment and regulation of the DTT platform. Of course, the Bill provides for more than the establishment of a DTT entity. It also provides that RTE, TG4 and TV3 will be guaranteed access to a certain multiplex capacity. This situation will not change. In other words, the legislation will, if enacted, guarantee that our existing indigenous broadcasters will be in the driving seat when it comes to ensuring that their existing services are carried in digital form and that they have an opportunity of developing new digital services.

The Bill also provides for the regulation of the digital broadcasting sector from a broadcasting perspective through the expansion of the powers of the Independent Radio and Television Commission. This will not change.

RTE's position as the national broadcaster, providing a public broadcasting service on radio and television will be clarified and, indeed, strengthened. I have made clear on many occasions since my appointment as Minister that I believe there is now a stronger argument than ever for public service broadcasting, providing programme schedules of quality and diversity, and catering for minority as well as mainstream tastes. I have not changed these beliefs.

There are no proposals that would deprive viewers and listeners in this country of their access to RTE services. The Bill provides and will continue to provide for guaranteed availability of these services and of the services of our other indigenous broadcasters in digital form. The availability of these services in analogue form is also assured. That assurance will remain in place for as long as there is a significant demand for analogue services. In addition, RTE, TG4 and TV3 will have access to a share of the additional capacity created by the introduction of digital terrestrial television.

The Bill provides enabling powers for the establishment of TG4 in its own right. This will not change. Apart from the statutory basis for the station provided in the Bill, the separation of TG4 from RTE will require a significant amount of careful planning and discussion. My Department and TG4 have commenced discussions on the resources needed to maintain a national Irish language television service, with a strong and comprehensive Irish language schedule at its heart, as a separate statutory entity.

Deputy Kenny has criticised me for not including provisions relating to digital audio broadcasting in the Bill. As I have indicated in responses to parliamentary questions in the House, before consideration can be given to establishing digital audio broadcasting, otherwise known as DAB, in Ireland it will be necessary to develop a national policy for its introduction. This will require extensive consultation with all relevant organisations in the sound broadcasting sector, including RTE, the Independent Radio and Television Commission, the ODTR, the independent local and national radio operators and community stations.

My current priority in the broadcasting area is the enactment of the Broadcasting Bill, 1999, and the introduction of DTT. As I have said already, we may have a limited window of opportunity for DTT so it is important to progress the matter quickly. When this has been achieved I will pursue the consultation process referred to. I am aware that the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland had expressed considerable misgivings about the Bill and the effect its provisions might have on the availability of frequencies for DAB. I have met representatives of the IBI and my Department has had detailed discussions on this issue. It is my intention to meet the group again. In their latest letter to me, the IBI have suggested an amendment which would clarify that the Bill does not deal with DAB.

In summary, therefore, if it should prove necessary to propose amendments to the Broadcasting Bill in relation to the introduction of the digital terrestrial broadcasting platform, any such amendments will not fundamentally change the overall objective of the Broadcasting Bill, 1999, as passed on Second Stage, or the policy context in which it was drafted.

As a result of the difficulties in developing a transaction structure for the selection of a suitable investor in the DTT entity, it is necessary now to give some consideration to following the example of Britain and Sweden in the establishment of a DTT platform through the creation of two designated companies instead of one. If this option were to be taken, an RTE shareholding, as a right, in the multiplexing or retailing business does not arise. The question of an RTE shareholding in the transmission business, as I have already said, is nothing more perhaps than a question of timing for RTE itself.

Deputies will be aware that the policy context in which the Broadcasting Bill, 1999 was drafted, envisaged an RTE stake of up to 40% in the combined Digico business. However, I would draw the attention of the House to the fact that section 5(5) of the Bill, as currently before the Oireachtas, clearly envisages that RTE could decide to sell any holding it might have retained in the business. Accordingly, the high dudgeon that we have seen displayed on this issue in the media smacks of empty posturing rather than any serious policy considerations.

It is time to stop generating hot air on this issue. It is time also to realise that what is happening is simply the development of a policy on a complex issue that will deal with the practical difficulties encountered. The empty posturing that has been a feature of this debate over the past few weeks does nothing to progress developments in this important and urgent area. I hope that following this debate we can get back to the real work of providing a framework for the introduction of digital broadcasting.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Michael D. Higgins.

Ba mhaith liom mo chomhchairdeas a ghabháil leis an Teachta Ó Cionnaith as ucht an rún seo a thógaint os comhair na Dála. Tá sé thar a bheith tábhachtach go mbeadh an t-eolas go léir os comhair an Tigh seo agus gan muidne a bheith ag braith ar rudaí a thagann amach sna nuachtáin anois is arís. I compliment Deputy Kenny for bringing this motion before the Dáil. This House has been shamefully treated in relation to this Bill. Much time, as Deputy Kenny pointed out, went into the consultations that took place and the submissions that were made to the Select Committee on Heritage and the Irish Language. The Department or the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands then decided to leak to the media and the situation changed and chaos ensued in terms of what happened in RTÉ. The Minister has admitted that this was the case.

As a democrat I believe that when fundamental changes are envisaged – and whatever the Minister may say what she proposes here is fundamental change – they should be communicated to the Houses of the Oireachtas before they are leaked to media sources and various spins are put on them. The Minister has no one to blame but herself for the mess in which she now finds herself. The broadcasting Bill which was published by the Government last May bears no relation whatever to the proposals which have been outlined by the Minister tonight. This change in approach is something which brings about a fundamental change in the Bill. I base that remark on this point: when we strip away other aspects of the Bill the remaining, fundamental part of the Bill relates to what will happen to the transmission network.

Originally the Minister had agreed to give RTÉ a 40% stake in Digico but, for reasons known only to the Minister and the Government, in spite of what she said to us, it is not clear where the motivation came from for the changes. The Labour Party believes the national television transmission network should remain in public ownership. We should transform the transmission network into a commercial semi-State company which would sell its service to television companies at market prices. It does not make any sense to sell such a valuable public asset given the revenue it could earn in years to come.

The Government's obsession with privatisation seems to have no limit. My party has no difficulty with the introduction of competition in the public interest in many sectors. Competition has transformed performance in many areas of the economy. However, turning public monopolies into private monopolies is anti-competitive and contrary to the public interest. Natural monopolies, such as the transmission network or the electricity grid, should remain in some form of public control and the Minister would be well advised to examine the recent course followed by her colleague the Minister for Public Enterprise, Depupty O'Rourke, in relation to the electricity distribution network.

In the past, lack of capital has determined the State's role as a shareholder in public enterprises. However, that problem should no longer apply. The Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Deputy de Valera, should withdraw her present proposals and fundamentally rethink her position on the issue. As the Minister with responsibility for RTÉ, the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Deputy de Valera, has a duty to protect the public interest but has gone out of her way to do the opposite. In the process she has undermined RTE and its ability to map out a future for national broadcasting as we enter the digital age.

It is now almost a year since the broadcasting Bill was published. During that time the Select Committee on Heritage and the Irish Language conducted lengthy and in-depth consultations on the basis that RTE would have a 40% share of Digico. Many interest groups made submissions and presentations to the committee on the basis of the original Bill but since the Minister has moved the goalposts there is a case for recalling these groups on the grounds that the broadcasting Bill has been fundamentally altered. There are many good reasons the broadcasting Bill should be withdrawn and replaced with a new Bill.

The decision by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, on Monday night, to appoint Mr. Phil Flynn as mediator between RTE and her Department has been clarified by her speech and I accept that. I do not in any way underestimate Mr. Flynn's well noted skills, but he is to report to the Minister in three weeks and I must ask with what will he return which will alter the current position? I see this appointment as a reaction to the Fine Gael motion. The amendment proposed by the Fianna Fáil Party, which states that "Dáil Éireann welcomes the Government's decision to arrange for the establishment of a digital-terrestrial platform" is akin to saying that the Dáil favours motherhood. It is a meaningless sentence to include.

Hear, hear.

It "recognises the complexities involved in establishing the platform".

We know all about that.

I put it to the Minister that the complexities have been generated by her inaction and, as we see now, when pressure is put on her by way of a motion, as we have done tonight, she runs off and appoints Phil Flynn.

That was as a result of a meeting with the unions.

We understood from the media reports, and the Minister has corrected us, that he had some kind of mediating role. He is seeking to get the Minister's point of view across to RTÉ and its unions. That does not advance the situation one iota.

We have an amendment to the motion put down by Fine Gael and we are seeking to have the transmission asset transferred to a commercial semi-State body. There are many important reasons for this. One of them is that technology in this area keeps galloping forward. None of us in this Chamber knows what will happen over the next six months, the next year and so on. It could well be that the network will have a significant added value in quite a short time. The State should benefit from that. The ownership of the asset should remain with the State because an established semi-State body can make the requisite or necessary contractual, franchising or other arrangements with broadcasters. Its ultimate role would be to maximise the return to the State from this particular asset.

The question arises as to what happens in relation to RTÉ and then there is the matter of the valuation. I am not sure what the Minister has in mind in terms of letting the market decide the price. Suppose the market decides there is only one contender? This could be in the form, say, of a strategic partner, as the Minister put it or as is apparently proposed by her now, though she has not clearly stated her position. If, however, the agenda is to privatise the asset, how do we operate this market mechanism to establish the value of the asset? As Deputy Higgins would say, the concept of the notional value into the future is part of arriving at a valuation of an asset such as this.

The amendment compliments the Minister on her efforts to date to devise an appropriate structure. That is bland nonsense, as a Bill published last May and which was the result of a great deal of work is now in chaos and there is a filler of sorts for three weeks until the Minister gets a report from Mr. Flynn. None of us knows what that report will achieve, but obviously the Minister will not address the possibility of amendments until that three week period has passed. There are approximately 1.25 million households in the State and of that figure, 510,000 households are receiving either cable or MMDS systems. There are indications that cable companies are to move into providing digital services. I despair completely of seeing the revised Bill or amendments before the summer recess, so are we in danger of not having dealt with the legislation in the Dáil by the end of this year? This is in the context of having a Second Stage debate with the expectation that the move towards digital television would happen towards the end of this year. There are other technologies, such as satellite television, and the market may be gone by the time we put digital terrestrial television in place.

Companies with MMDS franchises are not interested in going to isolated areas where there are few houses or where there may be a technical difficulty in providing a signal. Digital television is the superior technology in this regard, which means that digital terrestrial television should be received in areas where a signal is not being provided. It is not a question of a bad signal being available but rather that none is available. There is also the deflector system sector, which is filling a gap at present. These operators have short-term licences and the Minister should address the question of what will happen to deflector operators when digital television comes on stream. There are undoubtedly areas where a system will not be provided unless an analog deflector system is available. Will there be a future for these local companies in relation to digital terrestrial television?

I am appalled by the mess this area is in and I blame the Minister. As an elected Member I am appalled and offended that the Department – and the Minister, who has the final responsibility – chooses to conduct its business through media leaks rather than respecting the primacy of the Legislature.

I thank Deputy O'Shea for sharing his time. I too congratulate Deputy Kenny on drawing attention to the issues now before us in the matter of digital broadcasting and RTE's position in particular.

It would have helped if the Minister, while supporting the self-congratulatory amendment, had told us how she had arrived at her policy decision. For example, on what basis is the transmission system held? How was it funded and built, in whose name is it held and in what national and international legal regime is it held? The Minister did not do that. Late in her speech she made a gesture towards public service broadcasting when saying she believes there is now a stronger argument than ever for public service broadcasting, providing programmes and schedules of quality and diversity in catering for minority as well as mainstream taste.

That statement is correct and we would all like to think it is true. However, what a nonsense it is to suggest one can take public service broadcasting and put it in a ghetto and then imagine that all other broadcasting activities and multimedia services that will surround it in what was previously a nationally accountable asset will have no effect on it. It is extraordinary.

It is also interesting that RTE, uniquely, is expected to sell the transmission asset at a price which is an existing use value. In stock exchanges all over the world not a single technology company in the known world is selling or valuing its assets in terms of current earnings. Every one, including those involved in mad speculation, is based on potential value. Why is RTE to be treated differently? I suspect it is because RTE was originally a company accountable to the State. It is an extraordinary ideological position.

Deputy O'Shea finished by saying these matters should be debated in the Oireachtas rather than in the shadows of aeroplanes and airports. However, I am not surprised because when I was a Minister and the present Minister was in Opposition she had the appalling Fianna Fáil habit of saying: "I am not sure if it is true or not but I have heard" or "There is an impression abroad." There is an impression abroad that there is absolute chaos in broadcasting. People also remember the extraordinary atmosphere of vindictiveness which Fianna Fáil has always brought to broadcasting. Before we resume tomorrow people should reflect on the Burke era in broadcasting. People should think about whether he, when Minister, was always motivated by the highest principles of Lord Reith or public service broad casting or how we would meet the highest international broadcasting standards and whether there was always an element of being able to tell RTE how to behave and, if it did not, how discomfiture could be quickly imposed. I will leave that aside now, but I would be less than honest if I did not say it was background factor.

When the Minister discusses digital terrestrial television she will recall that I and others welcomed the decision – I still do – that DTT was the way to roll out the digital transition. She had my support on that. However, she should remember the argument we all put forward for doing so: universality of access and the nearest one could get to the television set commonly held. How can she say she accepts that principle while at the same time splitting the multiplex operation from the transmission system in such a way that those who will have a dominant position in the multiplex operation will be able to grind the public service broadcasting product into the ground? That simply does not make sense.

Debate adjourned.